This two-part blog series explores the challenges of fundraising and strategies for overcoming them. In this first part, I talk about "troubleshooting" my fundraising efforts, while the second post will describe the strategies that worked for me.
A while ago, I read that Australians spend more money on coffee than on donations. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as we have very good coffee over here, but the statistic nevertheless inspired me to play a little fundraising game with my friends: I asked them to keep track of how much they spend on coffee in a week and then give the same amount to Hearts to Harmony, a small Cambodian charity in Siem Reap.
Photo Credit: Hearts to Harmony
Hearts to Harmony started out providing training and education to a small number of local teenagers and now also provides a range of measures to help the poorest of the poor in rural Siem Reap, such as wells, monthly rice donations, women's health care seminars and educational scholarships.
As an additional encouragement to my friends, I promised I would match their donations up to a total of AUD 400.
Somewhat naively in retrospect, I simply posted my idea to my Facebook timeline and leaned back, expecting an enthusiastic response. I kept checking for likes and replies, but nothing was happening. A few hours later, when still nobody had signed up for my challenge, frustration started to mount: Did nobody care?
Photo credit: Michael Clark, Creative Commons License
Were all my friends self-absorbed egomaniacs whose only concern was for their own lives, without sparing a thought for those in need? I decided there was no need to freak out prematurely and put the matter aside for now, then checked Facebook again the next morning: still nothing.
Mulling things over, I decided I needed to approach the issue from a different angle: It wasn't possible that none of my friends cared about people in extreme poverty.
Some of them had walked, biked or run for charity before, and I knew many of them were definitely interested in social justice. So maybe it was my approach that needed changing?
After all, apart from asking friends for donations instead of birthday presents, I hadn't done any fundraising before, so I had zero experience. Chances were I was doing something wrong. And come to think of it, didn't charities spend a lot of money and effort on fundraising and employ a range of different ways of doing it? If fundraising was as easy as pie, surely none of that would be necessary?
A different strategy
I decided what I needed wasn't a different set of friends – it was a different strategy. I started looking at the issue from a variety of angles, beginning with simple questions like:
- Was my post too long?
People needed to click on "See more" because the bottom part was cut off, so looking at the whole thing would require an extra click, and most of the essential info was below the line. That probably wasn't the optimal way of getting my message across.
- Was "Kickstarter Fatigue" to blame?
(Thanks for the term, Brad!) These days, we get asked for donations and contributions pretty much everywhere: on the street, in the mail, via email, by phone, and everyone on Facebook seems to be wanting something from us – support my Kickstarter project, support my charity run, support my community group… My fundraiser would have been just one more of those on everyone's newsfeed.
- Was Facebook too anonymous a forum for something like this?
Maybe people didn't feel like I'd asked them personally and thought that someone else would give something. In addition, everyone who didn't reply to my post immediately (or open it in a separate tab) would probably never see it again because it would just disappear below all the new posts on their newsfeed.
Thinking further, I also wondered whether a reluctance to jump at the opportunity to participate in my "coffee challenge" might have to do with any the following factors:
- Did people feel they're already giving enough?
The fact is, I don't know which ones amongst my friends are giving to charities, or how much. So people might well feel they don't have any more money available to give or think they've done their bit.
- Did people feel that I wasn't respecting their choice of charity?
I myself constantly walk past people on the street trying sign me up for whichever charity they're recruiting for, but it feels like that's different – after all, I've made a careful study of which charities I want to contribute to, and how much and why. Was I operating on an unspoken assumption that I'd done the work and my friends might not have? Did I expect them to contribute to a charity of my choice without further ado because of that?
- Did I make people feel guilty rather than excited about an opportunity to help?
Maybe reminding people how poor others are and how even the price of a cup of coffee can make a difference makes them feel guilty rather than encouraging them. Did they feel like I was trying to take away their enjoyment of a nice cup of coffee? (Definitely not my intention – I like my coffee as much as the next person!) Maybe it's possible that by asking for donations, we may make people feel bad rather than encourage them to contribute and feel good about it?
- Was the contribution I asked for so small that it felt like it didn't matter?
Maybe asking for just a few dollars doesn't make people feel like their contribution will have an impact and they think: Why bother? I've heard that people tend to feel they've made an impact when there's more of a personal sacrifice involved. I didn't take this into account as it runs counter to my own intuition – I'm happy to contribute a few dollars as long as nobody asks me to invest a lot of time and effort; it feels much easier to me, but I guess I'm just lazier than my friends!
- Did people feel I wasn't making enough of an effort myself?
Photo credit: Kevin Dooley, Creative Commons License
Even though I'd pledged to match donations up to AUD 400, there wasn't any other sacrifice on my part involved: I wasn't walking, biking or doing anything else apart from contributing money. Doing something extraordinary like the 100km charity walk two of my friends have done is probably more impressive than simply leaning back and matching donations, and it may get people more excited about giving.
These are just some of the things I reflected on when I started my fundraising experiment. I'll be talking about the strategies that worked for me in my next blog post, but meanwhile I'm very interested to hear from all of you: What are your experiences with fundraising? What are your best ideas for getting friends and family to contribute?
 Please note that Hearts to Harmony isn't one of the charities recommended by The Life You Can Save, so if you are considering making a donation to them, do your own research on how your donation will be used.